11 November 2007

Some basic myths about autism

Keep in mind that, in any of my posts, inevitably there will be issues not addressed, or those that are barely elaborated. Anything less than a book is necessarily incomplete in this manner.

This is what I wrote in the comments/discussion section of an article in The Guardian about autism (some writing added, especially near end):

Anti-cure doesn't mean anti-support. I am autistic, and I am in speech therapy, since even though I write coherently, I rarely speak well (especially when I am to speak spontaneously, this is mostly impossible). I took until I was about 10 to be fully toilet trained, and I couldn't dress myself until I was about 8. I still can't brush my hair without help. The sound of my mother or sister making a phone call in the other room with the door shut was often a sensory overload. I scored in the bottom 8% of people my age in the Test Of Problem-Solving, with a social age level at <11 years, 4 months (I am 18). I have seizures and have head banged for a good portion of my life (not as common now, but still sometimes). I was diagnosed Asperger's at age 10 through the elementary school, and my dad has some autistic traits.

Anti-cure perspective is not only by Aspies or HFA people. Look to Amanda Baggs, who is a nonspeaking, autistic woman who stims very much. She is against cure.We do not believe that autism-related difficulties should be ignored. We believe that there should be a balance between adaptation (of the autistic person to a non-autistic society) and acceptance (of the autistic person by other people in society). One of the myths is that autistics are constantly suffering of autism. We suffer when adults at the school, or sometimes in the home, yell in our ears thinking that we are disobeying them, when in fact we simply are not hearing or are not understanding the specific instructions given.

Just because someone isn't smiling doesn't mean the happiness isn't there. I have tremendous difficulty hugging my parents, but they have been educated as to the realities of autism, that because I do not want physical contact does not mean that I don't care, or don't love them, or am cold and aloof or simply not trying.We are also said to be doomed to a life without friends. This is not true, although yes, it is harder for us than for others, and our friendships tend to have a different texture to them than NT relationships.

In elementary and junior high school, I never really had friends. I was beaten horribly by my peers, in fact, for my difference, for the way I rocked in history class, or needed clarification on so-called "simple" instructions that for me were incredibly vague. But the answer is not to get rid of autism, but rather to enforce the school counselors to follow the law. By law, those bullies should have been suspended (for some), expelled (for many others), or even faced criminal charges (for one or two of them). The counselor told me that if I behaved more "normally", then I wouldn't have these problems. She seemed to think that, since my test scores were high, then I must be high-functioning in all areas - and even if I could have changed, I made on that day the difficult resolve that even if I had the ability to change, and that this change would make my life so much easier, that I would not want to be anyone else.

In high school, I switched to an arts high school, where the student body was radically different from the other schools - they were incredibly accepting of differences, and when I got out of my seat in my literature class and spun around in the room, people didn't laugh at me, nor did they pity me. I was just being me, and people at the school thought it was cool - whether they knew it was in my neurological nature to behave this way, or whether they thought I was just nonconforming, I found a place where I was accepted as myself - as the person I was and wanted to be.

Nowadays, three years from when I entered the school, I have several friends, and I never make eye contact, I often break the flow of conversation with my silence, at not knowing what to say or how to say it, I rock and spin and have difficulty doing simple things unless everything is broken down into detailed instructions, I meltdown when the fire alarm rings, or when it is crowded and noisy, and my friends show me compassion just as they would if a "normal" friend had been assaulted (or insulted) and needed help, emotionally or physically. I am treated as a social equal, despite my social and speech ineptitude.

Helping an autistic person to function does not mean training him or her to make eye contact, or to stop spinning or rocking. When I do manage, to somehow, for some few seconds at a time, to make eye contact, I have an even harder time than usual in processing spoken speech. Stimming helps me to not get quite as stressed out from fluorescent lighting, or that grating buzzing sound I'm hearing now, from a machine not too distant.

It disturbs me is that much of the autism research supposedly going towards a cure and "prevention" is going toward the development of a pre-natal test for autism, so that parents can selectively abort their autistic children, an action that would amount to the eugenic screening out of autistics.

And do not think this is just an Aspie issue.

I would be just as saddened, and disheartened, to hear that autistics who don't speak, have IQ scores in the range of mentally retarded, and who have poor self-help skills were no longer being born as if the speaking, Nobel-prize-winning Aspies were no longer being born. The fact that I am compelled to state this is enough to show how bad the culture of perfection is gearing us to believe that none but those fitting the narrow mold of "perfect" and "high-functioning" are worth living their lives.

The truth is, functioning levels are often arbitrary, and offer no more use than a common stereotype when it comes to getting to know and helping people. I have heard/read things far more intelligent from some people who have IQ in the retarded range than some ignorant and stupid things I have heard/read from people with a Ph.D. in psychology. Our definitions of intelligence are flawed, as are our ideas of the inherent relationship between functioning level and value of person's existence as they are.

If you still believe that "low-functioning" people and the mentally retarded are not valuable enough people that they should be given opportunity to life as much as any "normal" person, I suggest that you expand your views. Peruse the blogs of the many intelligent autism and disability activists (ballastexistenz and Rett Devil come to mind). Learn about people by getting to know them, rather than going by first impressions and the words of outside professionals who may not have ever looked into the perspectives of the people they claimed to understand so well.

With regards to the issue of "should we try to prevent/cure people we deem to be less perfect than most", an example of fiction I recommend is the book Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It is about a mentally retarded man who wants to be more like his "normal" friends and get smarter and so participates in an experimental surgery to increase his intelligence. I read it in eighth grade, and we had many discussions about genetic engineering and whether we should abort people with disabilities or try to make retarded people "smarter" (I feel that "smart" is a bit of a loaded word). These discussions basically set the foundations for my passion of advocacy I am beginning to take to a more serious interest. Mr. Williams (my language arts teacher of grade 8) was a great teacher and I thank him very much!

My two cents (whatever that means).

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